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Susitna-Watana Dam Research Optimistic, but Citizens Concerned

By Mallory Peebles, Crime and Law Enforcement, Natural Resources and Parks Reporter, Fill-in Anchor, mpeebles@ktuu.com
Published On: Nov 01 2013 06:27:34 AM AKDT
Updated On: Nov 01 2013 09:28:16 AM AKDT

The Alaska Energy Authority has released research showing that few salmon approach the site of the proposed Susitna-Watana Dam -- but some residents of the region say the project isn't as environmentally friendly as backers claim. (KTUU-TV)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -

The Alaska Energy Authority has released research showing that few salmon approach the site of the proposed Susitna-Watana Dam -- but some residents of the region say the project isn't as environmentally friendly as backers claim.

Devil's Canyon is just downstream from the dam's possible location, where AEA -- a public corporation formed by the state Legislature in 1976, now part of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority -- says natural energy from the rushing Susitna River would be harnessed for Alaskans. 

"Natural gas will always be part of our future, always part of our energy mix, but this is more about diversification," says AEA spokesperson Emily Ford.

The Susitna-Watana project has been discussed since the 1950s, when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation started studies to see if power could be generated from the Susitna River. In 2011, the Legislature approved funding to pursue the project.

AEA is conducting research in the area on wildlife, geology, water flow and fish. Its findings show that few salmon make it past the class-6 rapids where the dam would be built. As a result, the authority believes the hydroelectric project would be a safe and renewable resource. 

"By understanding the environment a little more, we can help predict what impacts of the project might be," says Ford. 

Ford is optimistic that Susitna-Watana will be good for Alaska, but not everyone shares that optimism.

"I'm very challenged in my thinking to how they could go out and decimate a giant wilderness area on the Susitna River and call this green," says Stephen Mahay, the owner of Talkeetna-based Mahay Jet Boat Adventures. "It's about as far away from green energy as anything could be."

Mahay says he's against the dam because of the harm it will do to the environment.  He says the state has other options.

"My concern is looking at the larger picture and looking at the future of the state of Alaska," Mahay said. "We have incredible quantities and hundreds of years of natural gas."

AEA says there may be some tradeoffs, but that the positive outcomes of building the dam will far outweigh the negatives.

“There is a construction period and there will have to be a physical project constructed, but we're talking about 100 years of clean, reliable power," Ford said.

The project is still in its initial stages of research and more information is expected to be released by the beginning of next year.